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May 13, 2016

Tommy Joseph is here, but will he get the chance to play?

Tommy Joseph unpacked his bags and put on an official major league cap for the first time as a major league player inside the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park on Friday afternoon.

He is easily one of the best stories in the first six weeks of the Phillies season. Joseph, a former top catching prospect acquired in the Hunter Pence trade four summers ago, was besieged by injuries since arriving into the organization, including a series of concussions that forced him out of the position and over to first base.

His inability to stay on the field kept him from showing off the bat that once made him a top prospect. It then led to him being removed from the 40-man roster just seven months ago.

But then he put together the best spring of any player in minor league camp. And then in the first five weeks of the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs season, he was arguably the best hitter in the International League; his .347 average and .981 OPS both led the league.

He was even in the starting lineup on his first day as a major league player, with most of his family able to make the trip from Arizona, too. (Joseph’s fiance, Ali, a first lieutenant in the Air Force, is in Mississippi. She’s expected to arrive in Philly on Saturday).

It’s a terrific story. But there’s just one, not-so-small question that remains unanswered: now that Joseph is here, will he get to play regularly?

“I’m in the lineup today,” Joseph said. “I’ll show up tomorrow, and, that’s really it. As long as I come prepared to play every day, that’s really all I can do.”

It’s almost the same thing Darin Ruf said during the first week of the regular season, when he found himself on the bench regularly despite out-playing Ryan Howard in spring training. But manager Pete Mackanin said he would employ a platoon at first base and the Phillies only faced eight left-handed starting pitchers in their first 35 games of the season.

Entering Friday, Howard had 98 of the 121 at-bats from Phillies first basemen this season.

Ruf surely didn’t take advantage of the opportunities when they came – he hit .158 (9-for-57) without a home run – but he also didn’t get very many opportunities to get his bat going. Ruf hasn’t started three straight games since the end of last season.

“We haven't faced that many left-handed starters for him to stay sharp,” Mackanin said. “I haven't been able to find him consistent at-bats for various reasons and we just want him to go down to Triple-A and play every day and get his swing back so that he can come back up here and help us at some point.”

But that leads to an obvious follow-up: couldn’t Joseph be in jeopardy of being in the same predicament, on the right-handed end of a platoon that heavily favors the left-handed hitter in getting regular playing time?

“We'll see,” Mackanin said. “It remains to be seen. I don't know how many lefties we're going to see. We might mix him in with some right-handers. It'll depend on how well he's swinging the bat. In close to 100 at-bats he was hitting (.347) and (Triple-A manager) Dave Brundage told me that most at-bats were quality at-bats. If he could do the same here, there's no telling what could happen.”

Joseph has some luck on his side. The Cincinnati Reds have left-hander Brandon Finnegan on the mound Friday, and although two right-handers follow in their rotation this weekend, the Marlins arrive in town on Monday with left-handers scheduled to start in each of the first two games of a three-game series.

So, going strictly with the way Mackanin has handled his first base platoon, Joseph, who, like Howard, can only play first base, would be in line to start in three of his first five games with the Phillies.

But what about after that? Doesn’t he warrant a longer look as a 24-year-old with his best tool (hitting) fitting quite nicely on a team that’s struggled to score more than two or three runs a night?

“Much like any player, his performance up here will dictate how often he plays, how long he stays, things like that,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “As I’ve said all along, Pete is responsible for making out the lineup and it’s no secret, we’re looking for an offensive jolt. And if Tommy can provide that, he’ll work his way into the lineup.”

Perhaps we’re burying the more important question here, the flip side of the will-Tommy-Joseph-actually-play dilemma.

Is it time to dump the platoon and begin to transition Howard to a secondary bench role, not unlike the team did last year with Carlos Ruiz, no matter what side of the plate he hits from?

Howard entered Friday hitting .243 with eight home runs in 34 games.

Among 187 qualifying major league hitters, Howard’s batting average ranks 184th. His .243 OBP ranks 182nd.

Among 25 qualifying major league first baseman, Howard’s .665 OPS ranks 23rd. Howard has also struck out in 37 of his 115 plate appearances, which is just under once in every three times he steps to the plate.

“Well he's always struck out a lot but he's also hit for a higher average (in the past),” Mackanin said. “Of course, I'd like to see him swing the bat better and get more hits and drive in more runs. It is what it is. As far as how I'd evaluate it: it is what it is. I'm seeing the same thing you're seeing and I'm hoping he can get going.”

The only argument that could be made for Howard (and bear with me here, this is more of a devil’s advocate thing) is that he has hit eight home runs (only three big league first baseman have hit more). And those home runs have helped the Phillies win games.

The Phillies have had 15 of their first 35 games decided by one run and they entered Friday with the second lowest runs-per-game in baseball. So, home runs are obviously helpful.

“We don't have a lot of power and he provides some of that power and he's won a couple games for us with a home run,” Mackanin said. “Nevertheless, that possibility is there so if he can just get it going, be more consistent then he can help us win more games. That's what I'm hoping for. … The fact that we don't have a lot of power, he's one guy that can provide it but he needs to be more consistent. And he knows that.”

But perhaps Joseph, who hit six home runs in 27 games in Triple-A this season, can also provide the same long ball threat. And while Ruf was two months from his 30th birthday, Joseph is five years younger than the guy he just replaced, and 12 years younger than Howard.

If the Phillies truly are rebuilding and evaluating their young talent, Ruf should have played more than he did in the season’s first six weeks, even if the best-case result was that he turned into a trade chip come July. Joseph, on the other hand, should absolutely play more than Howard in the next six weeks (and beyond) since he stands a good chance of being the team’s regular first baseman in 2017 if he continues to hit as he did in Allentown.